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‘Fastball’ test could help detect Alzheimer's earlier

image of woman wearing fastball headset

Published: 14 July 2023

NIHR has awarded £1.5 million in funding to develop a revolutionary test known as ‘Fastball’. The test aims to improve early detection for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The study is being led by researchers at the Universities of Bath and Bristol, in collaboration with Cumulus Neuroscience. 

Researchers have developed an image recognition test called Fastball. This involves showing a person some pictures to remember. Then showing the pictures to them again at a very fast rate, mixed up with pictures they have not seen. The test uses electroencephalography (EEG) which measures brain activity using inexpensive, easy to use headsets. Using EEG means the researchers can see brain waves from areas of the brain that recognise images, to show whether the person remembers the pictures or not.

The funding from NIHR will allow the research team to expand the assessment of the Fastball test, to determine whether it can diagnose dementia earlier. Previous research has shown that the test can pick up small, subtle changes in brain waves which happen when a person remembers an image. The researchers have also demonstrated that this response changes as a person develops dementia. This offers hope that detecting these changes could help diagnose the disease earlier.

Dementia is typically diagnosed too late, up to 20 years after the disease has begun. At this point, the disease has damaged the brain beyond repair. Quicker, more accurate ways to diagnose dementia are urgently needed so patients can get treatments earlier and plan for their future.

Unlike current tests for dementia, Fastball is completely passive. This means the person doing the test does not need to understand the task, or be aware of their memory response.  The test is also portable, meaning that tests could be carried out anywhere including in a patient’s home. 

During the five-year project, the team will test Fastball on more than 1,000 patients in a dementia clinic at Southmead Hospital in Bristol. This is the biggest study of its kind to use EEG to screen for Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers hope to enrol a diverse group of patients to the study.  

Researchers will also trial Fastball in two GP surgeries to learn how and where they could use the test in the NHS. They will work with economists to estimate how much it could save the NHS in the future. The team will partner with Cumulus Neuroscience to develop and distribute Fastball tests nationally on their cutting-edge EEG platform.

This project is one of six announced as part of NIHR’s £11 million investment to develop enhanced digital approaches for early detection and diagnosis for dementia.

Fastball also continues to be supported by South West-based dementia charity BRACE, whose support helped to get the project off the ground.

Dr Liz Coulthard, Associate Professor in Dementia Neurology at the University of Bristol and neurologist at North Bristol NHS Trust, added: “Patients can wait a long time for diagnosis and some of our current tests can be inaccurate and sometimes stressful for them. A quick, easy-to-administer memory test, like Fastball, could transform a patient’s journey to diagnosis.

“As we adopt new treatments into clinical practice, we will need to scale-up our ability to diagnose people at an early stage of Alzheimer’s and avoid language barriers. Fastball offers the opportunity to improve Alzheimer’s diagnosis equitably.”

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